The Toronto Raptors learned in winning an NBA Championship that not all wins are created equally. A Friday night loss to the Charlotte Hornets, more infused with ennui than energy, reinforced the inverse, that not all losses are created equally, either.
The Raptors were coming off of a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that felt like a playoff game. They fought heroically, if at times poorly, and there were a variety of lessons learned for how to improve against the Bucks in the future. Toronto’s 99-96 loss to Charlotte had no such redeeming qualities. The team’s performance channeled the heart and soul of Raptors-era Hedo Turkoglu.
Perhaps the most defining narrative of Toronto’s season has been the team’s ability to suffer seemingly any injury and remain competitive, even against the best teams. It hasn’t seemed to matter at all who’s on the floor. Until now. The Raptors roster has some minor imbalance issues that haven’t really mattered over the course of the season. But the team employs only two true point guards, two true centers, and then a horde of wings, more or less. Against Charlotte, Toronto missed both centers and one point guard in Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet. That’s sort of the critical mass when Toronto’s on-court performance is dramatically limited by its available players.
Lacking both centers, Toronto shared its center minutes between Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, and Pascal Siakam. Toronto wasn’t actually hammered on the offensive glass, allowing only 11 to the Hornets, but every defensive rebound was a fight. Toronto’s pace was hampered, and it had to set up slowly in the half-court too often for the offense to find easy baskets. More importantly, Toronto lacked its usual stellar rim protection, as occasional breakdowns allowed Charlotte to score 42 points in the paint. To be fair, Toronto’s defense was actually solid all night, and far from the main problem on the night.
Lacking one point guard, Toronto struggled to initiate offense all night. The Raptors finished with only 19 assists as a team, as makeshift initiators Terence Davis and Patrick McCaw struggled massively. The young guards combined for two points on one-of-12 shooting and one assist. Both have their strengths, and Davis especially is in the midst of a wonderfully impressive season, but neither is ready to be without one of Lowry or VanVleet on the floor. Honest Nick Nurse admitted after the game that the bench players, particularly the guards, were not good enough.
Roster makeup wasn’t the only issues. The players who were on the floor struggled. Siakam looked strangely fallible for much of the game. Outside of a solid stretch in the second half, he was mostly unable to beat his defenders off the dribble, and he threw a variety of reckless and hopeless shots at the rim. He finished shooting nine-of-23 from the field for a team-high 24 points.
“Obviously, we didn’t make shots,” said Siakam. “Missing everything. Layups, free throws, I mean, the list goes on. Threes.”
Toronto on the whole, by the way, shot 34.7 percent from the floor, 23.3 percent from deep, and 69 percent from the free throw line. One positive was the return of Norman Powell. He returned without having lost a step. His simple role remains the same: attack to score every time he touches the ball. It worked, as Powell scored 22 points and hit four triples. Powell’s return performance was mostly why Toronto wasn’t blown out.
The Raptors have played a number of games this season giving lackadaisical effort for the first 30 minutes, finding a killer push for five minutes, and holding the fort for the rest of the game. Building that habit is a mistake. No team, not even the Raptors, can always muster that killer push at will. Or, sometimes opponents will catch fire from deep and stay afloat with difficult shot-making; the Hornets shot 43.3 percent from deep against Toronto.
Of course, games like this happen. It’s a miracle of the modern-day Raptors that such losses are so few and far in between. Perhaps the streak-busting loss to the Brooklyn Nets before the All-Star break and an early-January stinker against the Miami Heat stand out as comparable to Toronto’s loss to Charlotte. Those had excuses just like this Charlotte loss. But the excuses don’t make the games any more watchable. Lowry played well for perhaps four minutes, and that alone almost won the game for Toronto. That’s encouraging, just as it’s heartening that he’s able to dial up to the best player on the floor upon demand. But he should have played well for his other 34 minutes on the floor.
It’s unlikely that the loss will matter in the long run. Teams lose games in the regular season, some of them ugly. Players have bad games, sometimes all at once. And the Raptors have indicated, in resting Marc Gasol despite an admittance that he hasn’t re-injured his hamstring, that home court advantage in a possible second round series isn’t the most important thing to the team. Nurse and company care more about health. For that reason, Toronto rested Ibaka and VanVleet, despite Nurse telling media that both suffer only from soreness, and will not be out ror long. All three of Gasol, Ibaka, and VanVleet will accompany Toronto on the West Coast trip, hopefully to play at some point. Besides, Toronto’s conservative approach to player health is proven to work in the long run. Sometimes as a result, teams will lose games that hardly even resemble basketball. But it doesn’t mean we have to enjoy watching them.